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Ex-Fire Chief, Atlanta Both Claim Victory After Ruling In Firing Case

Judge Leigh May says Mayor Kasim Reed's termination of Kelvin Cochran's employment with the city did not violate his rights to free speech or religious expression.
Credit Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated Press
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A federal district judge has ruled on ousted Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran’s lawsuit against Mayor Kasim Reed and the city.

Judge Leigh May says Reed’s termination of Cochran did not violate his rights to free speech or religious expression. This wasn’t a case of Reed discriminating against Cochran because of his views, according to the judge.

However, she did find that the city’s policy of requiring employees to get permission before taking outside work – as in, writing a book – is unconstitutional.

Both the city of Atlanta and Cochran are framing the ruling as a win.

“Ultimately Cochran lost on his most important claims,” said WABE legal analyst Page Pate. “What he’s claiming victory for is really kind of a collateral claim that I don’t think ultimately is going to result in any significant benefit to him.”

Reed fired the ex-chief in 2015 after Cochran wrote, self-published and distributed a religious book at work in which he said gay people and those who engage in extramarital sex are “vile,” and “cursed evil-doers.”

In a statement, Atlanta city attorney Jeremy Berry said, “We are pleased that Judge Leigh Martin May ruled today that Mayor Reed acted lawfully and appropriately in terminating Mr. Cochran’s employment. This lawsuit was never about religious beliefs or the First Amendment. Rather, it is an employment matter involving an executive in charge of more than 1,100 firefighters and tasked to lead by example.

“The City is pleased that Judge May found in the City’s favor on all major constitutional issues, and specifically rejected Mr. Cochran’s claim that the City violated his due process and other First Amendment rights of freedom of association, free speech, and free exercise of religion.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative Christian legal group representing Cochran also claimed victory.

“A federal district court ruled Wednesday that city of Atlanta rules which led to the termination of Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran are unconstitutional. The court found that the city’s policies restricting non-work speech, like a book for Christian men that Cochran wrote, are too broad and allow city officials to unconstitutionally discriminate against views with which they disagree,” the Alliance said in a press release.

The Alliance Defending Freedom also represents Christian bakery owner Jack Phillips in high-profile U.S. Supreme Court case pitting anti-LGBT discrimination against religious freedom.

Georgia’s Judge May now wants both sides to let her know if there are any issues she didn’t get to in her 50-page ruling. The matter of whether or not to compensate Cochran could come next.